The sight of slabs of flesh should horrify and disgust any sensitive person if they exercised their inborn compassion. Habit has dimmed their native kindliness. Their palates have become abnormally corrupted and conditioned by taste for dead food, its flavoring and odors. People who eat slaughtered creatures everyday find it hard to imagine what to substitute for meat, not realizing that meat is the substitute for vegetables. – Helen Nearing, Simple Food for the Good Life
October 1st is World Vegetarian Day, and one thing I think would bring about a great deal of positive change is for us to do away with the obsolete idea that plant-based foods are somehow a "replacement" or "substitute" for animal-derived pseudo-foods. I cringe nearly every time I read these terms in cookbooks and other dietary literature written from a vegetarian perspective.
The idea that the products of other animals' bodies can be food for us is a sham perpetuated by dietary speciesism. We misguidedly perpetuate this oppressive framework when we promote plant foods as "substitutes" or "replacements" for other animals' flesh, eggs or milk. This falsely frames plants as an artificial food source while furthering the pretense that products derived from other animals' bodies are somehow a genuine source of food.
I agree with Helen Nearing that the sight of severed flesh should horrify and disgust us. I also recognize that we have indeed been conditioned to derive psychological gains from the texture, taste and smell of products derived from other animals – these are in fact the sensations of human privilege. The gratification we derive from these sensations is the result of social, cultural and political forces supported by speciesism and is used to keep the structure of human supremacy firmly in place.
From a vegan perspective, a vegetarian way of eating is central to any dietary system. The products of other animals' bodies are not food, but rather part of the processes and outcomes of human privileges gained through a structure of human supremacy, and perpetuated by the ideologies speciesism.
Malnourishment and the Revenge of Dietary Speciesism
Most so-called "replacements" or "substitutes" for animal-derived pseudo-foods are thought to be filling in for a lack of protein in a vegetarian diet. This reflects a speciesist assumption that presumes the vegetarian diet is nutritionally lacking. However, in her book Simple Food for the Good Life, Nearing turns this false assumption on its head:
Vegetable protein is the original source of meat protein. Nuts are not a substitute for meat; meat is a substitute for nuts. All fruits average out with about as much protein as in mother's milk. The banana has more protein than mother's milk. Vegetables average out to about 3 percent protein, nuts to 15 percent and seeds about 20 percent.
If one fed adequately on fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and sprouts one could do without animal flesh and dairy products and still be above the minimum necessary intake recommended by orthodox nutritionists.
All plant life is made up of protein. Without the protein created by plants, there would be no animal protein in the form of flesh, eggs or milk. Vegetarians have long acknowledged that all our food is originally plant-based. However, much of the plants we cultivate are literally being processed through other animals into pseudo-foods.
Of course, how we nourish our bodies goes well beyond protein. But speciesism creates a distraction by limiting our thinking on diet and nutrition. Speciesism therefore produces and sustains a lack of knowledge that actually leads to a decline in public health. That is to say, the products of other animals' bodies are actually depriving our bodies of health and nourishment. In spite of acquiring protein from a diversity of plant sources, vegetarians are constantly questioned about where we get our protein. Yet how often are those who consume animal-derived pseudo-foods asked where they get fiber, antioxidants, vitamin C, folate, or phytochemicals like flavonoids, phenolic compounds, or carotenoids – health-promoting compounds found primarily or exclusively in plants.
On the other hand, while we shouldn't be eating them anyway, there is significant evidence that consuming products derived from other animals' bodies can harm us. However, speciesism works to obscure information about how these pseudo-foods promote disease – that is, those animal proteins that we're told we can't live without are actually making us sick, even killing us. But even suggesting that introducing animal-derived substances into our diet can and does lead to chronic disease and premature death gives rise to a tremendous backlash (just take a look at the comments to the article linked above). In effect, speciesism encourages us to ignore how the products of other animals' bodies substitute malnourishment for plant-based nourishment.
Thus, the vegetarian diet free of animal-derived pseudo-foods is not the diet that is truly lacking – it has no need to "substitute" or "replace" essential dietary requirements. Dietary speciesism works to encourage the replacement and substitution of a healthful plant-based diet with a diet that includes pseudo-foods like flesh, eggs and milk.
Cutting Speciesism Out of Our Diet
Since this speciesism is so ingrained in the structure of our human supremacist society, we continue to ignore our own malnourishment because we refuse to give up the perceived privileges that come to us collectively from feeding off of the products of other animals' bodies. Which is exactly the point – of course speciesism doesn't exist to make us ill – it exists to justify our exploitation of other animals. It would still be a problem even if consuming pseudo-foods didn't make us ill, but we, as a society, are so attached to the those privileges we derive from exploiting other animals as so-called "food" that we'll hold on to them at any cost.
We are wrongly led to believe that we need to consume the products of exploiting other animals, and that anything else is a "substitute" or "replacement" for something thought to be essential. But we can challenge these speciesist misconceptions by living in ways that seek to meet our needs in appropriately nonexploitative ways, such as (re)centering our diet around plants. In short, we need to adopt a vegan way of life that renounces the privileges of exploiting other animals. And in terms of diet, this means vegetarianism.